Interview with Johannes Onderwater


Interview with Johannes Onderwater


Johannes Onderwater was born after the war and was always told that without the efforts of Operation Manna, which saved the lives of his parents, he would never have been born. This sparked a life-long interest in the operation. He wrote a book about Operation Manna and his research led him to meet many influential figures in the organisation of the Operation, including Air Commodore Andrew Geddes, as well as veterans and survivors of the food drops. His parents also made clear to him that not only did the allies bring food during Operation Manna but the Operation also signalled that liberation would be coming soon and this gave them hope. He decided that it would be good to invite veterans over to Holland to commemorate the events around Operation Manna. He also sought to identify graves of fallen aircrew, involve schoolchildren in direct commemoration and generally raising awareness of the Operation. He has written twenty five books so far. Johannes was awarded the MBE for his work.




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RVDP: My name is Ron Van de Put, IBCC volunteer, and now about to interview Mr Hans Onderwater, MBE. Dutch leading expert on Operation Manna and Chowhound. Hans, thank you very much for agreeing on this interview. And as a start could you tell a little bit more about yourself.
JO: Thank you. Yes. My name is Hans Onderwater. I’m seventy one years old. I am proud to call myself a result of the food drops because that is what my parents always told me. That, ‘If it had not been for the food drops in 1945 you would not have been born in 1946,’ because my birthday, the 7th of February 1946 very strongly relates to the middle of the food drops of 7 May 1945. I’ve always been interested in the history of the food drops because for many years it was an operation that very few people knew about. It was not an operation with violence, with shooting, with planes crashing but it was an operation of mercy. And what fascinated me was that one way or the other the allied air forces were able to organise a relief mission over a relatively small part of my country at very short notice and huge amounts of food for people who were really starving. And that kindled my interest. So, in 1979 I started wondering if it would be possible to find information to write a book about Operation Manna. Frankly, I’d never heard about Operation Chowhound because here in the Netherlands Operation Manna is the name for the food drops. So, I started gathering information. In those days many of the veterans who took part in the food drops were still alive and could easily be found through the services of the Royal Air Forces Association and other groups in the United Kingdom that had members who took part in the food drops. And when I had collected enough information to write my book I thought that it would be nice for veterans of the food drops to come to Holland and visit the places that they had flown over in 1945. For this reason, I got in touch with the Netherlands Ministry of Defence and I contacted Colonel [Ari?] de Jong who was then the Director of Information of the Royal Netherlands Air Force and who had been very much involved in finding aircraft that had crashed in Holland and that had since disappeared in to the ground. And as a head of the Aircraft Recovery Squadron he did a sterling job in finding these aircraft and sometimes the crew members back. Well Colonel de Jong was an enthusiast about my proposals and he started to ask questions to some of his friends. And so we organised, in 1981, the Food and Freedom Foundation and this Food and Freedom Foundation set, as its aim, to invite former food droppers to come to the Netherlands for a couple of days and undergo the gratitude of the Dutch people for what they did in 1945 and also, to revisit the places that they had only seen in 1945 from a very low altitude. The first commemoration was in 1983. I had been in touch with a Mr Ted [Levis?] who lived in Breaston in Derby who had written a small ad in Airmail, the magazine of the Royal Air Force Association, wondering if there would be former food droppers willing to come to some place in England to have a beer, to sit together and talk about the food drops of forty years ago. In my never-ending stupidity really I wrote him a letter and said, “That’s ridiculous. If you commemorate something so important you shouldn’t do it in the UK but you should do it in Holland.” Not knowing that what was going to happen now because Mr Levis started to enquire if there were people interested in coming with him and we were overwhelmed with requests. So, in 1983 we had our first small reunion of former food droppers. British RAF people only of about fifty people that came to Holland and when it was such a great success in Holland in ‘83 we decided we would do it again in 1985 and then also invite aircrew from Canada, the United States, Poland, New Zealand and Australia who had been in the food drops. Of course, all these countries took part in the drops. And that became the commemoration of 1985. And we have been doing this until in 1915 we had, what I think was the last commemoration because with the progressing age of the food droppers it got a bit difficult for them to come and be in Holland for a number of days and survive.
RVDP: Ok. Thank you. I think you meant 2015 instead of 1915.
JO: Yes. Yes, of course. Yeah.
RVDP: But that doesn’t matter.
JO: Yeah.
RVDP: So, you’ve met with a lot of veterans.
JO: Yeah.
RVDP: Who were in Operation Manna and Chowhound and probably also recipients. What — what is it that struck you about them?
JO: First and foremost, what struck me was the reaction of Dutch people. Recipients. When they heard far away the sound of the Merlin engines of the Lancaster. It is an overwhelming experience when you suddenly see people who you consider to be of the age of your own parents to get so emotional because of the sound of four engines of aircraft. That’s it. People who start crying. People who start waving like mad at a Lancaster. Calling the Lancaster a ‘she.’ Saying, ‘There she is.’ And then of course, the meeting between the Dutch recipients and the allied givers who will embrace themselves even though they don’t speak each other’s language who will be so happy to meet and who will become friends and they have been friends since the first time they met. One of the most poignant memories I have of these meetings is when we were at a town called Vlaardingen where an American tail gunner met a Dutchman who had received food from the Americans and the Dutchman was saying all the time in Dutch thank you, thank you. ‘Dank je, dank je, dank je,’ and the American, who didn’t speak any Dutch of course, with tears in his eyes was saying, ‘It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.’ And in the end these two elderly gentlemen embraced each other and gave each other a kiss and well that moment I was in tears. So, yes, the remembrance and the commemoration of the food drops to the Dutch people who lived in those days is still something that makes the heart beat twice as quickly as it does.
RVDP: So, you will be forever grateful. That’s what it sounds like. And you also admire them.
JO: If I say forever grateful — yes. Because as I said it was impregnated into me by my parents that at the end of the war when my mother was only a shadow of herself. My father had been in hiding for a long time because he was wanted by the Germans for his Underground activities. When they saw the Lancasters and the B17s coming over and when they saw the food drops in Rotterdam they knew that now the war was at an end. Because it was not only the fact that there was food coming for the people. No. It also meant that when these aircraft that we had seen and heard for four years at a very high altitude at night and during the day are now so low that we can actually see the aircrew sitting in the planes, waving at us. Well, the Germans now must be at the brim of defeat to allow them to do that. So, it was also a morale booster. And it also meant, as far as my mother was concerned, that when food is on your plate you eat it. Full stop. Whether you like it or not because its food and food cannot be bad because it’s food. And that is a psychological thing that parents have, especially parents who were young people in 1945, that sometimes is a bit difficult for you as a boy when things were abundantly available. I don’t like leek. My father likes leek. So, when my father was still alive we had leek once a week. So once a week I suffered but I ate leek because leek is food.
RVDP: I see. Do you, because you have obviously met also a lot of important people who were involved in Operation Manna. Can you tell us about some of those people? Maybe you have anecdotes or special moments you remember.
JO: One of the highlights of my life as a historical researcher was when I found Air Commodore Andrew Geddes. Air Commodore Andrew Geddes was the man who actually devised the whole operation. Eisenhower gave him five days to do it. He then flew to Holland to negotiate the food drops with the Germans. Well he didn’t negotiate the food drops. He told them when it was going to happen and he oversaw the food drops. And this gentleman, after the drops had been carried out, returned to his job as Air Commodore Operations of the Second Tactical Air Force and never thought again about the food drops. And he was so amazed when I contacted him and I said, ‘Sir, can I please come and see you?’ He lived in East Sussex. ‘Can I come and see you and talk about the drops?’ He was amazed that people remembered it and he invited me to come to his house and we went there and he had so many memorabilia of those days. In fact, he had a copy of the full transcript of the agreement signed by the Germans. He had photographs of the negotiations and then it turned out that in the days of the negotiations he had befriended his Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands who was there representing Her Majesty the Queen. Queen Wilhelmina. So, when I wrote a letter to his Royal Highness saying that I had met Air Commodore Geddes, Air Commodore Geddes was invited to come to Soestdijk Palace and met Prince Bernhard. So there I was, a simple teacher from Holland, escorting the man who organised the food drops over Holland to the father of my then Queen to the Royal Palace. And of course, during the afternoon that we were there I was completely ignored because the prince and the air commodore had so many stories to tell each other and the prince was so much back in his flying years and I knew they were both bragging and lying about how low they flew and how steep they dived but still they were very happy to see each other. And since then Air Commodore Geddes and Prince Bernhard met regularly at the palace. And even when Geddes died Prince Bernhard sent a floral tribute and he telephoned Geddes’ sister who was then still alive to say how much he was sorry to hear that the air commodore had passed away. Yes. I have met several British higher officials who were, who were flight lieutenants in 1945 and by the time I met them in 1983/4/5 they were air vice marshalls. And when you are a reserve second lieutenant in the Dutch army and you meet a real air chief marshall you feel very small and then it turns out they are very nice people like you try to be. So yes, but more important for me was that I was able to meet the people that my parents adored. The aircrew. Because my mother used to say they risked their lives for us. They flew every night, every day to bomb Germany and give us our freedom back and in the end they brought us food. And that stuck with me all my life and that’s why I wrote my books about the food drops.
RVDP: Can you tell us more about your books?
JO: My first book is called Operation Manna and it’s a Dutch book about the whole organisation of the drops, the carrying out of the drops. It’s a book of facts and figures, facts and figures and a book about stories that people told me when they remembered the food drops. Then later the same book was published in English called Operation Manna Chowhound. And I wrote a book about the memories of the people who were involved in the drops both on the ground, the recipients, as well as the bringers. Even the German POWs who were forced to cut the food into separate pieces for single people without being allowed to touch it themselves. And I remember the German soldier who said, ‘I wasn’t upset that we lost the war but I was upset that I had to put all these cigarettes on little stacks and I wasn’t allowed to smoke one. Because if there was one thing I was hoping for after we surrendered was a cigarette that really smelled like a cigarette.’ That’s in the book and it was a great pleasure to write that down. So, yeah and then I’ve written other books in which Operation Manna is mentioned but these two books are really the books that are about the food drops. They are no longer available in the shops because it is many years ago. I know that you sometimes can buy them on Amazon and then I am a bit upset to see that they cost three times more than they used to cost when I sold them. But that’s life.
RVDP: So, you’re involved with Operation Manna firstly because of your parents and you being born just after the war which wouldn’t have happened if Operation Manna wasn’t conducted at all and because you are an historian.
JO: Yes. My — I’m a teacher really but I studied history both at the Academy of Rotterdam and at the University of Groningen. And when I had to write my final paper at the University of Groningen I thought that it would be a good idea to write a book about, or a thesis about something no one else had written about so I wrote the war history of the town where I lived which meant that a local bookseller came and said to me, ‘If I print it into a real book would you allow me to use it?’ And I said, ‘Yes please.’ And when I had to do my final exam I walked to see my professors and the guys who were going to interrogate me about the book and I had five books with me and I put them in front of them on the table and I said to them you can keep the book when you are ready with me and I thought, well I think I’ll pass the exam because they got a free book out of it. And then one thing came after the other when I moved to another city. The mayor of that city asked me would I please write a war history of that particular town. And then I wrote a book about Barendrecht where I live today. And then I found out that a lot of aircraft crashed in this area. I wrote a book about all these aircraft and then one after the other came until 600 City of London Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force asked me to write their history, which I did. And then Number 2 Squadron, the squadron that I served with for a while as a liaison officer asked me to also write their history because also Air Commodore Geddes had been the commanding officer of that squadron in 1939/1940. During the phoney war. And since that day I’ve written twenty five books. The last one coming out next year and so it kept me off the street also.
RVDP: And if I’m right you were honoured by Queen Elizabeth the Second with an MBE. This year.
JO: Yeah. That was, that was a great honour. I felt very humbled. Very surprised. There was a little story to tell with that because suddenly we got an email from Sir Geoffrey Adams, the British Ambassador in the Netherlands if Mr and Mrs Onderwater were willing to come to the Residence and have a cup of tea. And I said to my wife, ‘Why does the British Ambassador want to drink tea with me?’ So, we went to Sir Geoffrey and we had tea and eat and then in the middle of the conversation he said that it had pleased Her Majesty to give me the MBE. Would I accept? And I didn’t answer him because I was so flabbergasted that my wife had to tell me, ‘You have to reply.’ And I said, ‘Yes please.’ And that was sheer astonishment. I never expected that and we had a wonderful ceremony in the Hague. In the Residence because I said that I would very much like to be my children present when I got the MBE and that made it a bit tricky to go all the way to London. So, Sir Geoffrey very kindly was the host at his residence and I was able to invite my children and some other friends. Among them Lord Stirrup who had been my commanding officer as a wing commander with number 2 Squadron and Viscount Trenchard who was the honorary air commodore of 600 Squadron whose grandfather basically formed the Royal Air Force in 1918. And a lot of other people that I’m friends with and that I know. It was a wonderful day and I feel it’s a great honour and I’m well aware that there are not very many foreigners who get an MBE. So yeah. I’m deeply honoured.
RVDP: And what was the reason you got it?
JO: If I read the official paper that was read to me it has to do with all the work I did in making sure that the people did not forget the Royal Air Force over the Netherlands during the Second World War. The fact that I identified unknown airmen who were buried without a name on their grave. Doing administrative research and giving the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sufficient evidence to open the graves and attempt to identify them. It had to do with my Operation Manna occupation and the things I did helping to organise these commemorations and inviting veterans to come over and with the work I do to make sure schoolchildren adopt graves of allied airmen in the towns where they live. I mean it sounds like a lot but I wasn’t aware that people would appreciate that because I really felt I had to do it as a kind of thank you to those people. But then apparently somebody else has a different opinion and gives you a medal and that’s very humbling and when I say it’s unnecessary it’s not because I want to be rude but I was honoured to do it and then the MBE comes as a great, great reward. Yeah.
RVDP: I can imagine. And it’s well deserved. Hans are you still involved in identifying aircrew, finding lost aircraft, maybe organising events, making presentations or such?
JO: Yes, I am still involved in one particular case where I try to identify an airman who is buried unknown but unfortunately as long as I am doing my research it’s unwise to tell too much about it because first of all, you cannot divulge anything until the relatives have been informed that a grave has been identified as their loved one. And then I also do lectures for various organisations about the Second World War and the involvement of the allies. I do a lot of lectures about Operation Manna and Chowhound. I was even invited to come to New Orleans last year to do a lecture for the World War Two Museum there. With about seven hundred people present. It scared the hell out of me to see so many people waiting for me because when I have an audience of fifty people I feel like I’m speaking in the Wembley Stadium. And then I’m still doing research for towns in the area where I live if they want to know something about the Second World War. I abuse my connections to find out what they would like to know. And I help schools that have identified a grave by getting them in touch with the next of kin and establish a bond between the family and the school. That’s about it.
RVDP: And in how many cases were you able to help to identify someone who was lost?
JO: Up ‘til now, since 1977 I have identified five British nationals, one Canadian, two Poles and one American. So, it’s not, they’re not very many but its more than nothing and I like to tell myself that in all these cases the families, the families are happy to know where their loved ones have been buried and they have a place to go to if they want to.
RVDP: I can imagine. Yeah. That must be also, like you already said, very rewarding.
JO: It is because I’m the very last one to get in touch with the families because the moment when the identification has been accepted I leave it entirely to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to get in touch with the family. I always ask them not to mention my name because I don’t want people to feel indebted to me because I’m the one who’s indebted and I’m just trying to pay back a little bit of the interest of the mortgage that I have with their son or their father or whatever but then in the end of course the families often ask the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who’s the guy who did it and then they tell them. And then when they get in touch with them I mostly, I often try and see them in England and visit them and stay there for a few days and explain to them the circumstances under which I did my work and then we stay friends. Mostly, of course, with the children and the grandchildren of said people because often the direct relatives have passed away since. I mean we’re talking about now seventy, seventy five years ago.
[Recording paused]
RVDP: Ok Hans. This is part two of the interview. Could you please elaborate a bit more on your talks with Andrew Geddes and how he was able to get Operation Manna and the agreement with the Germans.
JO: If there is one person who comes to mind when you think about the success of Operation Manna it is Air Commodore Andrew Geddes who in 1945 was the Chief of Operations of the Second Allied Tactical Air Force with the headquarters in Brussels. Andrew Geddes was told on 21st April 1945 to come to Reims, to the headquarters of Eisenhower where he was informed that he had seven days to prepare, organise and negotiate food drops for three and a half million people in occupied Western Holland who were starving. So, Geddes sat down with his people and the intelligence people that he had at his disposal and they organised the food drops using ten known places in Holland that had not been flooded by the Germans, airfields that had been destroyed by allied bombings and places near the big cities where the starvation was at its worst. On the 27th of April he flew from Brussels to Nijmegen where he landed in his Percival Proctor single-engined aircraft and was driven by the Canadians via Arnhem to a village called Achterveld which was on the Canadian side of no man’s land between the German occupiers and the Canadian liberators. There on the 28th April he met the German delegates in a school in Achterveld, the St Joseph’s School and there he virtually told them what was going to happen as far as the food supplies for the Dutch were concerned. He always stressed there were no negotiations. There were informations. And Geddes was told not to ask for German permission but just to tell them. Warn them what was going to happen and tell them not to do anything against it. So, Geddes spoke with the German delegates. One of them was the second in command as far as Seyss-Inquart was concerned and was, one was a high ranking officer of the staff of General Blaskowitz who was the German military commander in the Netherlands. And then the Germans couldn’t make a decision and they were given twenty four hours to come up with a decision which meant that on the 30th of April Seyss-Inquart himself came with the chief of staff of Blaskowitz. And they were again met by the allies but this time not only Geddes was there but also General Bedell Smith, the chief of staff to Eisenhower. And during these negotiations Seyss-Inquart said he was very reluctant to help because he was afraid that the Americans and the other allies would use the food drops as a means to spy. And then Bedell Smith got very angry and he said to Seyss-Inquart, ‘Listen. You are on our black list of war criminals. You are likely to be executed.’ And then through his interpreter Seyss-Inquart said, ‘That leaves me cold.’ And then Bedell Smith said to him, ‘That’s indeed what it will do.’ And he ended the discussions and told the Germans this is how we are going to do it and that is what’s going to happen and that was the end the meeting. So, then the Germans were pressed into signing the agreement, which is they did and then Bedell Smith went back to Reims and everybody went to their doings and the Germans were escorted back to their lines. In fact, one of the Germans protested with the Canadian Colonel who was escorting them that one Canadian soldier pinched him in the buttocks with his bayonet and called him Fritz and he said, ‘My name is not Fritz.’ And the Canadian colonel said, ‘I don’t care. To me you are a Fritz.’ And then the food drops started on the 29th of April even though it had been agreed to do it on the 1st of May but Geddes said that he had heard from the Dutch and from Prince Bernhard that the rate of starvation in Holland was so alarming that something had to be done immediately. So, on the 29th of April, two days before the agreement was officially set the RAF started dropping food. The Americans waited until the 1st of May with Operation Chowhound. So we should also remember that the RAF and the Canadians, and the Australians, the Poles the New Zealanders took a tremendous risk by already starting the drops two days before the agreement would be valid. And I think that if we thank the allied food droppers for what they did we should also thank Air Commodore Geddes for his perseverance. For the clever way in which he organised and negotiated the drops and oversaw it and even though he was very much forgotten it was a great pleasure to get him in touch with Prince Bernhard again in 1985 and they became friends and he visited, he visited —
[telephone ringing]
JO: I think we should never forget that it was Air Commodore Geddes who originated the food drops. He devised them on paper. He negotiated the drops. He oversaw the drops once they were taking place and it was shame that he was historically forgotten until I got in touch with him in 1983 and then of course we were able to give him proper thanks by inviting him to be our main guest as the representative of the RAF in 1985 where he met Prince Bernhard and the Dutch prime minister gave him a medal for it. And it is nice to know that until he died he became a friend of Prince Bernhard again and they had personal contact quite often.
RVDP: That’s great. Ok Hans. Thank you very much for the interview.
JO: My pleasure.


Ron van de Put, “Interview with Johannes Onderwater,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 11, 2023,

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